AM Route Driver of the Year: Lester Fields

At age 12, Lester Fields accompanied his father into the mines and emerged covered with soot. When he got home and looked in the mirror, he saw the whites of his eyes amidst a black layer that covered his face. A love of cleanliness became instinctive. As a coal miner's son in Richwood, W. Va., Fields acquired an aversion to dirt.

Fields also cherished the comfort of his home, his friends and his family, values which were also important in rural West Virginia. He learned the need to do his part to help out whenever and however he could. He grew up believing in the importance of doing his best to help make life better for other people, always placing secondary importance on his own comfort.

An exceptional commitment to customer service
That dedication has resulted in a commitment to customer service that is now the pride of Canteen Vending Services Inc.'s Verona, Va. branch. In his 32 years as a route driver, Fields has compiled a record of excellence that most vending companies could only dream of. He is the 2005 Automatic Merchandiser Route Driver of the Year.

In 32 years, Fields has missed one day of work, boasts an over/short record of 0.16 percent for the current fiscal year, a 0 percent pastry spoilage, 3.55 percent food waste, not a single driving accident or citation, 100 percent account retention, and the overall top sales performance.

Top honors in a highly competitive field
Fields took top honors in a field of more than 60 nominees. He was nominated by Jo Dee Jolley, the regional manager for Canteen's Verona, Va. district. He was cited for outstanding performance in the areas of sales, professionalism, safety, customer service and "outstanding qualities."

Fields will be honored by Kraft Vending & OCS during the NAMA National Expo in Atlanta, Ga. Kraft Vending & OCS is once again the sponsor of AM's annual Route Driver of the Year Contest, now in its second year.

"In today's world, he is the route driver we all wish to hire but never see walk through the door," said Jolley, herself a 23-year vending veteran. "He has devoted his life to Canteen, his customers and his family. Lester doesn't do all of this for the personal recognition; he works to please his customers and make Canteen the best vending company in the world."

When you meet him for the first time, Fields looks you straight in the eye and, if he doesn't know your name, calls you "sir" or "ma'am."

"I'm just an old country boy," he likes to tell people in his unassuming manner. Which isn't to say he's not very proud of the values he learned from his parents. They instilled in him a sense of duty to his community and the pride in doing a job well.

"I enjoy keeping things clean," he said. "That's the way I want things to be." There is a cleaning cloth in his back pocket at all times.

An early introduction to vending
Shortly after his 17th birthday, Fields ran into a childhood friend, Randall Dorsey, who was working as a supervisor for the Canteen branch in Charlottesville, Va. Dorsey, who himself had started with Canteen at age 17, knew Fields from childhood in Richwood, W.Va. He knew Fields would make an excellent route man.

"He was easy to train," recalled Dorsey, now 64 and retired. The two men still keep in touch. "He got along well with people. He performed well."

Fields, for his part, was happy to try something other than working in the mines.

"I loved it," he said of his first route driving job. Vending route drivers were well paid compared to other entry level jobs that were available to Fields at the time. He saw an opportunity to earn as much money as a miner, without the dangers.

For a boy who had worked in the coal mines, the amount of cleaning involved in servicing vending machines was hardly intimidating. Fields also enjoyed working with food and beverages, and with the various machines.

Early machines required attentive maintenance
In 1973, vending machines were still mostly electro-mechanical and required more maintenance than they do today. The columnar candy machines, gum machines and cigarette venders were the easier machines to service. There were also water-soluble coffee machines, cold cup beverage machines, can juice machines, dedicated milk machines, dedicated sandwich machines, and hot can food machines, all of which required a thorough servicing with every service visit.

Customer service has always been the goal
Back then, keeping the machines clean, filled and working was the main part of the job. Selecting product was much simpler than it is today. "People bought the same thing most of the time," Fields said. "You didn't have the variety you have today." There wasn't much competition from fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

The drivers recorded their "pulls" on route cards. The trucks did not have built-in refrigeration, so the perishable items were carried in coolers. The Charlottesville branch did not have its own culinary center, so they took fresh food deliveries from third-party commissaries.

As busy as he was maintaining and filling machines, Fields always found it easy to get to know the customers at his locations. People back then were in less of a hurry than they are today. The drivers enjoyed a strong sense of camaraderie, with one another as well as with the customers, Fields recalled. "We were all family," he said. "We had a good group."

Fields thrived in this environment. "I enjoyed the work," he said. "It was a whole different ball game. Everyone helped each other."

"I don't 'run' a route; I 'work' my route," he explained. From the very beginning, he challenged himself to make sure customers bought what he merchandised. If a sandwich didn't move in a location after two days, he would replace it and put it in another location where he felt it would have a better chance of selling.

He kept a close eye on code dates. To this day, nothing bothers him more than seeing a product with an older code date behind one with a newer one.

"It takes a little more time, but it's worth it," he said.

The charlottesville branch faces a trying test
In the early 1980s, Canteen sold the Charlottesville branch to an independent Canteen franchise. About a decade later, the owner/president of that franchise died unexpectedly. While the death came as a shock, the employees didn't want to see the service suffer, so they promptly went about their jobs, trusting that the second-tier management would be able to take care of them. Corporate Canteen lent some assistance.

Where the death of an owner/manager would create havoc in many companies, the Charlottesville team pulled together and kept the customers served as if nothing had happened.

"They just did everything it took," recalled Jim Cefaly, who became the general manager of the operation when the new owner, Hagerstown Canteen Service Inc., based in Hagerstown, Md., took over. "They were the most enthusiastic bunch. They were all dedicated people."

Hagerstown Canteen sold the Charlottesville franchise back to corporate Canteen in 1998, shortly after Canteen's parent company, Compass Group, acquired Service America Corp.

Always thinking about his fellow employees
The strong sense of team continues to the present day. Fields is always asking how things are going at the company, and if something needs to be done, he's willing to go out of his way to help.

Jolley, the regional manager, said she recently had a difficult time getting Fields to take a new truck, even though the one he was using had 250,000 miles on it. He simply insisted that another driver probably needed a new truck more than he did.

Getting Fields to take a vacation isn't easy, either. Jolley can expect to hear him complain that his machines aren't as clean as they should be once he returns to work.

With more responsibility, drivers rise to the challenge
Canteen ultimately decided to close the Charlottesville branch and service the area from its Verona, Va. facility, which is about 100 miles south. This required an adjustment for Fields and the other Charlottesville drivers. The drivers were instructed to take their vehicles home at night and take product shipments to drop off points.

Corporate Canteen, meanwhile, was studying new ways to empower drivers using technology.

Handhelds enable the drivers to perform better
In the last year, the Verona branch introduced DEX handhelds, which has enabled the drivers to service locations faster. The handhelds automatically record cash collections and column-level sales. The drivers place the handheld in a cradle at the end of the day and send the data via a dedicated land line to company headquarters. Fields admitted that at first he was intimidated by the handheld, but he had no problem learning DEX, and considers it an asset.

The column-level sales data is reviewed at the branch in Verona. The software automatically generates fill orders, saving the driver time and effort. The drivers are still responsible for selecting the products for one shelf in the snack machines.

Fields said downloading DEX into his handheld allows him to talk to customers more while he is servicing the machines. He doesn't have to record meter readings on route tickets. "You can listen (to customers) while you're doing something else," he said.

While he prides himself on his ability to know what his customers want in the machines, Fields welcomes the technology.

As a testament to Fields' understanding of his customers, Jolley, the regional manager, said DEX has not made a measurable difference in Fields' sales. DEX has improved annual route sales for drivers overall, Jolley said. But for Fields, it was a wash.

"Lester's work was always the neatest of everybody's," noted Karen Harlow, the district accounting manager in the Verona office, who oversaw the route cards that drivers previously sent in daily.

Technology makes the business more professional
One reason Fields welcomes technology is that he has witnessed how much electronics has improved performance of the machines over the years. Machines today are more reliable than when he joined the company. Among the different types of machines, Fields said the biggest improvement has come in the hot drink venders.

While many vending operations struggle with the hot drink business today, Fields said the improved quality and selections now available have done wonders for sales. Customers love Canteen's private label Ritazza coffee, he said. The whole key to achieving this great taste, he said, is constantly keeping the machine clean. "It's so easy, if people would just do it," he said.

Fields still has a couple of cold cup machines, which he claims customers still love. "I'll never understand why we got away from cup soda," he said.

The route driver's role continues to be critical
Even with the benefits that technology brings, Fields insists that the driver still needs to know what the customers think about the service. To know this, a driver has to care about the people. "If you don't have the personality, you're not going to make it," he said.

Jolley said the role of the driver is even more important nowadays at Canteen, given the new merchandising programs being introduced. The company has placed a great emphasis on its "Balanced Choices" healthy eating program. The company also continues to make strides with its proprietary retail food brands.

"I love this job," Fields commented, as he reviewed a bank of clean, filled and working machines.

Competitors have tried to recruit Fields over the years, but he remains committed to Canteen. "If you treat me right, I'm not going anywhere," he said. "Money isn't everything."

Fields and his wife raised a daughter and put her through college, and they are now grandparents.

As for being the Automatic Merchandiser Driver of the Year, Fields remains humble, but he fully accepts of the honor. "I'd rather have a 'thank you' any day; It means more than money," he said.